Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Getting Lucky

with 5 comments

So yesterday was crazy, but let me see if I can straighten any of this out.

I don’t know enough about what was going on inside this woman’s head to say for sure, but my guess is that all this began with simple confusion.  She was an elderly woman, in spite of the hair dye and the Spandex (yes, Spandex, sorry Lymaree). 

I might not think this except that my mother, before her dementia, was the same–to her, if it was a plastic card, it was a credit card.  We would go out to the mail and I’d use my card in the ATM and she’d tell my father I was charging money on my credit card.

I can easily see how that confusion would be even greater with the VISA logo right there on the card, and my guess is that the way that entire incident started was that this woman called up, was asked if she had a credit card, said yes (because she honestly didn’t know there was a difference), was given a set of requirements, and thought she was all set.

This place will, in fact, rent to you with a debit card, or for cash, but to do it they require that you put down a deposit of $300,    But if she said she had a credit card, she would have been told that.

And I’m also not entirely convinced that she didn’t think she’d heard what she said she’d heard–I do know that neither the man who owns the place or his daughter would have said the things she said they said, but I do understand how she might have thought that’s what they’d said.

If that makes sense.

I doubt if she was lying consiously, except possibly at the very end.

And the belligerance came and went.  Once she’d accepted no for an answer, she got very retiring and meek and quiet.

If I knowhow to map this incident with complete confidence, I might be more help to everybody here.

But what struck me was the extent to which the comments were divided between the assumption that the woman had had ill luck and the assumption that she’d made bad choices.

Maybe it’s just me, or the life I’ve lived, but my tendency is to think that the most likely explanation for a life without money or success is luck, not choices.

That doesn’t work for me in the other direction–I tend to think that having money and success is the result of the choices we make. 

The problem is that we don’t all make choices in the same context–that all things are not equal in some very basic senses.

My sister and brother in law both held jobs, my brother in law had a business on the side.  They adopted older children and put a lot of work into raising them in spite of the difficulties that kind of thing brings with it.  They paid their bills.  They didn’t gamble, drink, or drug.  They bought a modest house and paid a modest mortgage–and then Joann got cancer, and it all went to hell.

Most of the people I know whose lives have turned out sadly–not badly, so much as sadly, if that makes sense–have been broadsided by luck.  The guy who lost his house on my road lost his job not because of fecklessness but because the place went out of business, right smack in the middle of an economic downturn and right after his wife had just had their second child.  I can’t see that he could have done anything other than what he did do in the leadup to all that.

The same is the case with many of my students, who come from families and neighborhoods I wouldn’t wish on the cat.  Certainly being a drug addicted crack whore is to make lots of bad choices that will ruin your life, but being born to one (or not) is out of your control.  So is going to a school where nobody gives a damn if you learn anything or not.  Children are not responsible for their parents–and no choice they can make will change their parents–but parents are a large element in the success or failure of children, both as children and in later life.

And yes, of course, there is making lemonade out of lemons.  But not all of us are capable of that–not all of us have the intelligence, or their imagination, or the drive, or the temperament. 

I wonder how much of the support for certain kinds of government programs and structures–welfare, for isntance, or even uinversal single payer health insurance–is based on the amount of weight we give to luck and work in creating a decent life for oneself.

And on that matter I get very torn.

First, I am incredibly aware of how much luck matters. 

I mean, let’s face it–forced to live a normal life, Paris Hilton would not end up with enough money to buy $3000 handbags.  The “trust fund babies” some of you complain about do nothing to make their own money or to justify their position among the rich and famous except to have been born to the right parents, or even great-grandparents. 

But it’s not just trust fund babies.  Intelligence has a strong heritable element.  Temperament has an even stronger one.  Even if you’re born to that crack addicted mother, if you’re also born with intellect and drive, you’re going to get somewhere.  It may be the Harvard Law School, or it may be the head of the biggest drug operation on the Lower East Side, but you’re going to get somewhere.

And even if you’re born with the trust fund, if you’re born without the intellect and the drive, you’re probably not going to get anywhere, except drunk.  The only reason  you won’t be counted as a casuality is because the family lawyers will keep you out of trouble as far as possible.

And while we’re talking about luck, what about the simple luck of being born in my generation instead of the ones my students belong to–a generation in which schools took standards far more seriously and there was much more of a consensus about the basic values necessary to earning respect in this society?

Second, however, I am very aware that although luck can destroy you, it cannot make you succeed, at least not on its own.

I know a lot of rich kids with first class prep school educations who got shuttled off to schools you’ve never heard of because they just didn’t get the grades to get into a “name” college. 

Stephen King said in one of his nonfiction books that not everybody can be in the right place at the right time, but anybody could go to the right place and wait–luck determines whether or not you’re going to wait in vain, but work determines whether or not you’re going to be there when the trend comes around.

If that makes sense.

Third, I’m also convinced that thinking that luck isn’t very important makes it more likely that you will succeed.  There’s psychology here that gets a little convoluted for me, because I tend to be one of those people who gets spurred on to do things when people tell me they’re impossible. 

In fact, I’ve gotten myself in some fairly stupid trouble in my life with that particular reaction.

Most people seem to be more easily discouraged, and some people seem to be very easily discouraged, and it does make a lot of difference if they’re convinced that their destiny is entirely under their control.

But when I see an old woman who is poor and friendless and sortoflost, I’m not ready to assume that she got that way by being a jerk, especially since evidence of her jerkiness was at least mixed.

And I have absolutely no idea if I’m making any sense here.

Written by janeh

October 1st, 2009 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Getting Lucky'

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  1. I’m uncertain about where the balance is between luck and choices in their effect on our lives. I tend to downplay luck a bit, but I know that’s probably more a result of some of my experiences in my own life than a reasoned conclusion from observations of the population in general. I am absolutely convinced that trying to find, make and stick to the right decisions is essential in leading even a halfway decent life, and that getting tangled up in the ‘poor me, a victim of circumstances’ approach to anything from minor problems to major disasters doesn’t help and can even remove from the suffering person the possibility, the power, of belief that they can find a solution themselves. That hold even if the solution will be a bankruptcy or the best care until death – that is, the ultimate ‘solution’ is not achieving a goal, it’s not even regaining a previous status quo, it’s getting through the inevitable with as much grace as can be mustered.

    On the other hand, I’m also quite convinced that luck, chance, whatever you want to call it is influential, too. The family you were born into, the chemicals produced in your brain by the processes laid in place before you were even born, a chance meeting with someone…it’s all luck.

    There but for the grace of God…we all make choices and we are all offered the opportunity to identify the lucky chances, to understand God’s will, as people say. In the end, I don’t know why some of us seem to get so much of good choices and good luck than others do. Genetics, environment…neither explains everything.

    I do think that choices come in chains, so to speak. Once you’ve made one choice, the next and the next in the same category become easier. Years ago, a teenager asked me if I thought whatever music was considered to cause evil teenaged behaviour at the time actually did so. I said I thought it probably didn’t unless the teenager already had serious problems. Now, I’m much less inclined to see that in isolation, as a simple black-and-white idea. I think that if an individual chooses to glorify violence (or the reverse, charity, or intellectual excellence) in one aspect of his life, it’s easier to do the same thing in others. I don’t know what that idea makes me – I’ve read about tens of thousands of murders, real and fictional, and I don’t think I’m likely to suddenly carry one out. Probably you have to consider how life-consuming the interest in music with violent lyrics or books with murders is. I do think that there is a risk that if we allow ourselves to do things that feed our worst tendencies, those tendencies will grow and others, not encouraged by us, will wither. And when we get wrapped up in whatever our worst tendency is – love of violence, alcohol or other drugs, gambling, cheating – we won’t even recognize what would have been bits of luck had we aimed instead to be the best parent or the best teacher we could. And we certainly won’t consider it possible to make and maintain choices that would lead to a radically different life. Once the patterns are laid down, real change is incredibly difficult, regardless of choice and luck. I’ve also come to the conclusion that people who don’t see this are those who have only tried to change things that are rather minor to them, which is why you get people who drank or used drugs heavily, but socially, quitting cold turkey relatively easily, responding with bafflement to anyone who can’t do the same. Or weight loss or smoking or psychological stuff like one’s view of oneself as a good person or a good mother – if it’s tied really deeply into the personality, into the sense of self, the choices needed for true change is really difficult in a way that they aren’t for someone who doesn’t need to hold their view of themselves or their weaknesses quite so tightly.

    Now I’m rambling again.


    1 Oct 09 at 11:16 am

  2. Taking advantage of a lucky situation and using it for all it’s worth or taking it for granted and messing it up entirely have a great deal to do with temperment and self respect. I have noted people –myself among them on occasion–who are given a tremendous opportunity but, as we tend to say in the south, piss it away instead. There’s luck and there’s karma, or reaping what you sew. The fallout from poor decisions often takes years to straighten out. Sometimes people who mess up tend to be so discouraged by the outcome that they repeat the same ill choices that got them there in the first place. Einstein said: Insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different outcome.

    Dismissing luck or the lack of it is ridiculous when you consider physically abused children who die before their first birthday or people in impoverished countries who die from lack of food. Effort doesn’t really play into it when there are no resources to begin with.

    None of this, however, negates what the woman at the car rental place experienced either in her own head or in actuality. An older woman clueless about how things work now deserves help and sympathy.


    1 Oct 09 at 12:49 pm

  3. OK, that makes Spandex more an object of sympathy than I took her to be in the first account. But again, going back to the “judging by apearances” thread, it wasn’t speech and dress that kept her from getting the car, but fairly objective requirements.

    On the overall matter of luck and behavior: yes, sometimes people have terminal bad luck–everything from being injured by drunk drivers to being killed by falling airplanes. But if I could sort people out into “lucky” and “properly behaved” I’d always bet on behavior over a lifetime. No, I wouldn’t win every time, but I’d certainly come out ahead overall.

    I ought to refer to an interesting piece summarizing the effects of winning lottery tickets. Basically, life’s losers blew through the money and were no better off. The careful thrifty ones came out ahead, but they were doing OK before they won, too. Of course, that was an earlier posting on this blog.

    As to luck as the source of behavior–parents, environment, DNA–I’m just not feeling either behaviorist, geneticist or Calvinist enough for that one today. I probably won’t be tomorrow, either.

    But since we’ve circled around again to “health care reform”–did we really have to?–I’ll put in my two bits: on health care, I’m not thinking of life’s winners and losers in the abstract so much as I’m afraid the reformers don’t know people very well. For one, they have this remarkable notion that people go to a doctor when they’re sick, get well, and go back to work. I have relatives who would live in a waiting room if they could, and will take any excuse to visit one. It’s more interesting and less stressful to them than work. I have other relatives who take three asprin and go to work. One group isn’t necessarily any sicklier than the other, but most of the “reformers” act as though the first group doesn’t exist. Trust me, they do, and we’d do well to structure incentives so as not to encourage them or make more of them. The same thing holds with eliminating competition by decreeing that every policy cover the same conditions, and an incentive structure that gives no doctor a reason not to order a test or treatment and no patient a reason to decline one, and don’t get me started on “defensive medicine” and malpractice suits.
    We had about 30 years of unholy mess in our welfare system because it was structured by people who thought if you were paid $4.50 an hour to stay home, you’d naturally take a $5.00 an hour job because it paid better. Many of the “health care reformers” show a similar grasp of human nature.
    Heaven knows our present system has troubles, but many of our “reformers” seem never to have met any of the people who enjoy a spot of “just not feeling well”–nor a physician nor a lawyer for any longer than was necessary to receive the check.
    Laws should be written for people as they are, and not for people as lawmakers would wish them to be.


    1 Oct 09 at 4:12 pm

  4. I have student who has bad luck. He was born into a family with limited (virtually no) resources and limited views about the necessity of education. This young man is working two jobs so that he can go to school. He drives a run-down car and has bad teeth. He got pulled over by the police who say he “looked like a drug dealer” – no evidence – they confiscated his car (along with text books) and want him to pay to get the car back.

    He wrote the only A paper out of the entire class. I loaned him a copy of the text. He is doing things to improve his life, but luck has intervened. I’m not altrusitic by nature, but I do think this guy has a chance, so I created a little luck for him. I hope it’s enough to keep him in school, but I doubt it. In the end, he’ll still be dealing with limited resources and appearance issues.

    A little story –

    My father retired with a disability pension. When he died, my mother received a substantial pension from his employer. This pension allowed her to live well, own a home outright, and pay cash for her car. It also allowed her to have both medicare and an excellent supplemental insurance. Despite some scary illnesses, she managed to retain her income and property. When she was finally diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was able to hire people to be with her around the clock. In the end, she died only 6 days after the diagnoses.

    Luck – absolutely. Both the good and the bad.


    1 Oct 09 at 5:42 pm

  5. I guess I agree about luck, broadly defined, as playing a great role in one’s life. It’s like the basics — the hand your dealt. But you have to play the hand well (ie work). One of my uncharitable characteristics is not understanding that some people just can’t play their cards well. They really don’t have whatever it takes — initiative, gumption, perserverance, self-respect, ability to hope — whatever. I get annoyed at them. If only they’d… But some people aren’t capable of that “if only.”

    I very much liked Gail’s “creating a little luck” for that young man.


    2 Oct 09 at 11:27 am

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